Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote a great article over at New Republic, Can the Evangelical Left Rise Again? Now, I’m not very interested in the question she raised there. But for the record: probably not. It is true that in recent years, the GOP has treated Evangelicals fairly poorly under George W Bush. Remember the 2004 election that for Evangelicals was all about same sex marriage, but suddenly turned into “privatizing Social Security” as soon as Bush won? That does tend to foster a certain amount of resentment. Just the same: conservative Evangelicals support the Republican Party for mostly non-Christian reasons. Both sides are really focused on hatred of “those” people.
When it comes to the evangelical left, they just aren’t as much in sync with the Democratic Party. For example, my neighbor across the street is a loyal Democrat, but also an Evangelical. He isn’t keen on the party’s positions on abortion or same sex marriage. But the economic issues trump that. I’m not sure that Bruenig is correct to suggest that Evangelicals are “in lockstep with the GOP.” It’s just that they don’t about care issues like economic fairness. Liberal Evangelicals just seem to be more aware of the issues.
But what I found most interesting about Bruenig’s article was the history of it. The United States used to have a really big liberal evangelical movement. These were the people who were fighting for the end of slavery. There were conservative Evangelicals then too. They were the ones who (Quite rightly!) pointed out that slavery was in the Bible — in a very positive way. And later, they were the ones defending Jim Crow and segregation with Genesis 9:27, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant.”
I think this is really important to remember: there are liberal and conservative Evangelicals — and there always have been. It’s long annoyed me that conservative Christians run around grabbing onto the liberal Evangelical legacies from abolitionism through Martin Luther King. I knew it wasn’t right. I knew that during King’s day, the John Birch Society — a major conservative Christian organization — was totally against the Civil Rights movement. They were the ones claiming that King was a communist. I knew that these were not the kind of Christians who were fighting for African slaves in the Antebellum Period. I just didn’t have a narrative to explain it.
As recently as the 1960s, liberal Evangelicals were a well established group. “These left Evangelicals were anti-war, pro-civil rights, and deeply concerned with people on the margins of society.” And they are still around, just not a defined group. The reason that “Evangelical” has become synonymous with “conservative Christian,” is that the right has done so much to promote that. It’s pretty much the same thing that they did with the Tea Party movement. It’s a whole lot easier to have a clear “movement” when there are evil rich people ponying up money for conferences and other get togethers.
But the bottom line is the same: when these Republican Evangelicals claim that their movement is an extension of abolitionist movement, they are either ignorant or just disingenuous.